Tribal colleges introduce bill for $5M in grants

North Dakota tribal college presidents are expressing support for state legislation that would provide $5 million for workforce development grants at the colleges. The funding would come from the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

The bill, SB 2218, has passed the Senate and will be considered by the House in coming weeks, said Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College at Fort Totten.

Lindquist spoke at a press conference in Minot on Thursday, along with Russell Mason Jr., president of Fort Berthold Community College, Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College at Fort Yates, and Jim Davis, president of Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt.

If passed, the $5 million would be distributed evenly to the state’s five tribal colleges and would amount to $500,000 for each institution over two years. The money would be particularly useful for tribal colleges that could lose up to 10 percent of funding for some programs due to federal budget cuts. Reservations also have a significantly higher unemployment rate compared with the rest of the state. Bureau of Indian Affairs statistics put the average unemployment on North Dakota reservations at 55 percent, compared with 3.5 percent statewide.

“Workforce development is a priority for tribal colleges because as we help more tribal members get into the workforce, we will see unemployment, poverty, and other issues begin to diminish,” said Lindquist. “Unfortunately, tribal colleges currently lack the funding necessary to institute valuable workforce development programs.”

If passed, the bill would allow the workforce development grant funds to be used for maintenance and operation of the program, including development costs; costs of basic and special instruction, including special programs for individuals with disabilities; academic instruction; materials; student costs; administrative expenses; boarding costs; transportation; student services; day care and family support programs for students and their families, including contributions to the costs of education for dependents; and student stipends. It would also be permitted for capital expenditures, including operations, maintenance, improvements, repair, and capital construction projects for the improvement of the college; costs associated with improvement, repair, upkeep, replacement and upgrade of the instructional equipment; institutional support of the college, including assistance with any business development of the college that is operating in North Dakota and employing North Dakota citizens that is intended to assist the students of the college; and scholarships for students at the colleges.

Colleges would also have to report to the department of commerce how the funds were spent, the number of students assisted by the grants directly or indirectly, the graduation rate of students assisted by the grants, the kind of jobs for which training programs were developed by the college, the placement rate of all graduates of the college in jobs needed in North Dakota in relation to all jobs in which graduates were placed and the number of jobs and businesses created or assisted in being created by grant money.

The college presidents said they have “shovel ready” workforce development projects ready for implementation once funding becomes available and the funds would also help them expand some of their existing programs. They also pointed out that their colleges are accredited, offer certificate and two-year and in some cases four-year degrees, have open enrollment and include non-Indian as well as Indian students, so the grants would be of benefit to people on and off the reservation.

Most of the colleges draw their students from the reservation and surrounding communities and provide job training locally. Some students might find it challenging to travel elsewhere to go to college.

Turtle Mountain offers building trades, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and welding classes, among other programs. Fort Berthold, located in the heart of the Bakken, also offers vocational training. Presidents from both colleges have met with Minot State University this month to discuss development of degree programs that will train workers for new oil-related jobs. Mason said there will likely be a need for more welders, pipe fitters and people ready to work in the oil refinery being built on the reservation.

If passed, the workforce development grants might also help address other challenges on the reservation. At Fort Berthold, for instance, Mason said some of the funds would likely be used to update the college’s vocational facility, which was built in 1998 and is not equipped for some of the classes held there to prepare people for jobs in the oil fields.

Vermillion said that one challenge for students at Sitting Bull College is lack of transportation to available jobs and the lack of housing in those areas. Vermillion said people at her college would like to see if some of the funds could be used to provide a resource person who would help address some of those needs.

Lindquist said the grants might help fund a small business incubator program at Cankdeska Cikana Community College that will train future business owners and entrepreneurs. There is also a serious housing shortage on the reservations and building trades programs can help meet some of the need for more people who can build and maintain homes, she said.

Davis said he has hired one job placement officer at the college to help place students in jobs that are available off the reservation. Some of the funds might be used to hire additional job placement personnel, he said.

The college presidents have testified in support of the bill at the legislature and said they have a good working relationship with the legislators. They are hopeful the bill will pass the house.